Rem Koolhaas (Associated Press)

Rem Koolhaas’s massive, doughnut-shaped CCTV building in Beijing survived unscathed in February when a fire engulfed a nearby tower belonging to the same complex. But the event signaled the ending of an architectural era.

“I don’t even know about the word ‘downturn,’ ” said Mr. Koolhaas in his office in Rotterdam recently, reflecting on the global economic slowdown that has stopped the architecture world dead in its tracks. “It’s seems simply the end to a period.”

All around the world, major architectural projects are under threat. In November, construction stopped on the Russia Tower, a 600-meter-high Moscow building designed by the London firm Norman Foster & Partners. Meanwhile, another Norman Foster Moscow project, called Crystal Island, featuring a 450-meter-high, funnel-shaped skyscraper, has also been put on hold.

A few weeks after the Beijing fire, Harvard University, which has seen the value of its endowment shrink dramatically over the past year, announced that it was slowing down construction of its new billion-dollar science campus, meant to be a showpiece of sustainable architecture.

Mr. Koolhaas’s firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, is moving forward with its planned projects, including a theater complex in Taipei, a library in Qatar and new buildings in Mr. Koolhaas’s native Holland. But the firm, with offices in Rotterdam, Beijing and New York, has been forced to cut back its staff from a high point of 270 employees in summer 2008 to 220. While OMA has not seen any projects actually cancelled, Mr. Koolhaas said, “There are a number of things on hold.”

The CCTV skyscraper marked the climax to a world-wide boom in iconic architectural projects that commenced in 1997, with the opening of Frank Gehry’s shimmering Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. One of several innovative buildings designed by Western architects for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Mr. Koolhaas’s headquarters for China Central Television quickly became a signature of the Beijing skyline. Now, with a global recession threatening future architectural projects of all kinds, the building seems like a souvenir of days gone by, even though it has yet to be occupied.

“A reappraisal is going on in the architecture world,” said Cecil Balmond, the London-based engineer who has worked closely with Mr. Koolhaas for over two decades. “In a time of plenty, there is a bravado and a push to make more and more sensational [architectural] statements.” In the current climate, he noted, “a very spectacular iconic project might now get the pause button.”

On Feb. 9, the Beijing sky was lit up by a smaller adjacent tower in the CCTV complex, as its flames dwarfed everything around it. Mr. Koolhaas was in Milan that night when he got the news. “I took the plane right away and I was there the next day,” he said.

According to CCTV, the fire was caused by an unauthorized fireworks display, believed to have been organized on the site to celebrate the end of the Lunar New Year holiday. Images of the blaze were quickly distributed by Beijing citizens, who captured the fire on their cellphones and camcorders. Those initial images of the blaze suggested that the tower might be nearly destroyed. However, said Mr. Koolhaas, “they are simply rebuilding it as it was, because there was no structural damage.” As a result of the fire, one firefighter died and several others were reportedly injured.

OMA said the complex’s main building — Mr. Koolhaas’s gravity-defying, doughnut-shaped structure — wasn’t damaged. According to Bas Lagendijk, an OMA spokesman, the building, which was originally scheduled to open next month, may be occupied beginning in late 2009.

Mr. Koolhaas said that the “interconnectivity” of the building’s rounded form was meant to foster “an intimacy between all the parties” at CCTV. He also believes that the building, visible for miles, has had an impact on Chinese society. “It introduced a level of daring that had not been shown in China,” he said. I am very convinced that it had a positive effect on Chinese culture in general. It pushed the edge of possibility.”

Now 64, Mr. Koolhaas, who won the Pritzker Prize in 2000, was known during the first few decades of his working life for his writing and his unrealized projects as well as his finished buildings. Starting in late 2003, in what has proven to be a high point of his career, he finished three remarkable and very different buildings in three completely different urban settings, in 18 months: the Seattle Public Library; the Casa da Música concert hall in Porto, Portugal; and the Dutch Embassy in Berlin.

Mr. Koolhaas is sanguine about what the future holds for OMA. He has seen periods of tightening in the past: His firm shrunk down to a few dozen employees in the 1990s after a controversial commission for a public museum in Karlsruhe, Germany, was cancelled by the city parliament at the last minute.

For now, he said, upcoming projects such as the Taipei Performing Arts Center and buildings in Rome and Copenhagen — scheduled to start reaching completion in about two years — haven’t been affected by the recession.

“Architecture is in such a permanent state of flux and turmoil that we have no stability anyway,” he said. “That is why we are very good at improvisation.”

J.S. Marcus
Wall Street Journal